Meritocracy, Anyone?

New York State Governor David Paterson has an interesting problem. The state’s junior senator, Hillary Clinton, will soon be leaving her post to take up duties as the next Secretary of State, and the burden of choosing someone to finish her term has fallen on Mr. Paterson. To put it politely, politics in New York State is disgusting. It is dysfunctional, frequently corrupt, and mostly inept. It usually serves to unapologetically further the ambitions of individuals over their constituents, and there is little reason to believe, despite Governor Paterson’s good reputation, that the selection of the state’s next Senator will be any different.

Governor Paterson has a tough choice to make, but, what a choice to have. One may think the governor would simply be picking the person most able to fill the seat. That would be nice, but probably will not happen. The governor has some mitigating factors to consider. He will probably run for reelection in 2010. Should he appoint a rival, someone who would run against him in the gubernatorial primaries, to the seat, thus removing an obstacle to his nomination? Should he appoint a woman, or someone from a minority? Someone from the city, or from upstate, to try and balance the disparity of state politics towards politicians from the city?

No matter whom Governor Paterson chooses, there will be howls of protests from interest groups, aggrieved parties, and individuals. There are simply too many power brokers in this state to satisfy everyone with a pick. All Governor Paterson can really hope to do is satisfy himself, and his appointee. The hope is that out of all the names being circulated (state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Representative Kirstin Gillibrand, Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, Caroline Kennedy, and more), there is someone in that pack of hungry wolves who can be an effective senator.

The name that jumps out among those cited above is Caroline Kennedy. She is a recent addition to speculation regarding the appointment, and has met with the governor to discuss it. Since her name was introduced, pundits have stated the job is hers for the asking. The Kennedy name has been elevated to such a place that supposedly all Caroline Kennedy has to do is tell Governor Paterson she wants the job and it is hers. This is infuriating. It is bad enough the selection of the next senator is not being left to the people of the state, but the fascination associated with a potential appointee due to familial relations defiles the core principals of our democracy. Our system is built upon the votes of the people. Caroline Kennedy has never received one vote from anyone, but the one she may get would put her in the most powerful legislative body in the world.

She is not completely unqualified for the post. Disregarding her pedigree, she is an attorney, co-author of two books on constitutional law, an effective fundraiser, and has been involved in operating multiple political organizations. She may have never been elected to anything, but she is a lifelong politician. If Governor Paterson does appoint her to Clinton’s senate seat, he can easily cite her resume as the deciding factor. But, she’s a Kennedy. That last name has more weight to it than any in the last fifty years of American politics. They have been made into our closest equivalent of royalty. Unlike the royalty across the pond, however, we insist on putting these people in places of real power. Appointing a name is dangerous.

To give an idea of how the name ‘Kennedy’ clouds reason, Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post published a glowing article today justifying emotion over reason in picking Caroline Kennedy to fill the seat. Among the gems in the article was this: “...what a fitting coda to this modern fairy tale to have the little princess grow up to be a senator.” And to think, we live in a democracy.

Success in our society is supposedly built on merit. What advantages we get, we earn. That is at times a fairy tale as rich as the Kennedy legend, but we just had a national election that affirmed the heights we can reach as a nation. Maybe it’s up to the governor of New York to continue this affirmation of what we achieved, and appoint the best person available for the job. If he feels that is Caroline Kennedy, or Andrew Cuomo, or anyone else, fine. But a name does not a good leader make. See: Bush, George W.

A name is not an achievement, nor is it a license for unearned advancement. The Enlightenment taught us that, as countless generations struggled against a leadership class that felt entitled to be our betters. Of course Caroline Kennedy is not the inheritor of the tarred legacy of European nobles, but the point is, she shouldn’t be inheriting anything but her family’s looks and money.

Finally, there is one scenario for choosing the next senator that will not happen, but would be an event to behold. Instead of appointing a successor, Governor Paterson calls for a special election. He allots one week for prospective candidates to gather 10,000 signatures in order to be included on the ballot. From the deadline when signatures are filed and certified, there would be six weeks until the election. If no candidate wins a majority, there would be a runoff. Any person who can win in that madhouse deserves to be a senator.


Addendum: December 17, 2008 — Ruth Marcus has been catching a lot of flak from her readers for the article she wrote regarding Caroling Kennedy and the senate seat in New York. She wrote an excellent follow-up.